Winter is coming…and it’s gonna be literally breathtaking

Macedonia, without a doubt, can be described as a “breathtaking” country in two different ways: first because of its beautiful nature and nice and welcoming people; second because of the annual negative news about the air quality in its cities – especially in Skopje. According to statistics of the WHO, Skopje is playing in the same league with Beijing, New Delhi and other Chinese and Indian cities if it comes to air pollution. But also other European cities like Sarajevo or Krakow are struggling with a deadly mix of fumes, aerosol particles and nitrogen oxides.

According to a 2018 report of the WHO (World Health Organization), 9 out of 10 people on the Earth are breathing highly polluted air and around 7 Million people around the world die every year from the consequences of pollution and bad air quality – just a comparison: that’s the entire population of Serbia or Bulgaria! Most people might think about Shanghai, Mexico City or New Delhi when they hear about smog problems, but also European cities have huge problems with air quality.

Looking at the interactive map of the European Air Quality Index or the Berkeley Earth pollution map, a clear gap between eastern and western Europe becomes visible. The most polluted areas can be found in eastern Europe (here especially in the south of Poland) and on the Balkans – here mostly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Macedonia. But also western metropolises like Paris, Milan or the Ruhr-Area in Germany are exceeding the pollution limits set by the EU on a regular basis.

The smog over the cities contains a (in some places highly toxic) cocktail of particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NO2). A long lasting exposure to aerosol particles in a density of less than 2,5 µg/m3 of air can cause serious damage to the lungs (already particles of less than 10 µg can penetrate the lungs) and are clearly related to a high mortality rate in those areas with a high level of pollution. Negative health effects can be observed even with a low concentration of particulates. Ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are proved to cause a highly negative impact on the cardio-vascular and the respiratory system, inducing chronic bronchitis, asthma, inflammations of the respiratory system and blood circulation problems. The main causes of death caused by these elements are (among others): lung cancer, (brain) stroke, acute infections of the respiratory organs and cardio-vascular diseases (blood circulation problems).

While in summer the air quality in most European agglomerations is fair to moderate, the most hazardous time are the winter-months. Not only the road traffic but also coal power plants and private households contribute to worsen the air quality. Many people in the Balkan-countries heat with coal, wood or even old engine oil, plastic and other poisonous energy sources and most public buses in the cities work without catalytic converters.

But not only the sources of the fumes is a crucial condition for a high level of pollution, but also geographical circumstances. The example of Skopje shows it clearly: the city is situated in a basin surrounded by mountains on three sides, which has a hindering impact on the air exchange in the area and keeps the bad air over the city. Sarajevo – another Balkan city with similar high levels of air pollution – is facing the same geographical case.

Sascha Schlüter

Photos: Mathis Gilsbach

Interactive maps:


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